Climate change forcing Yup’ik Eskimo community in western Alaska to evacuate

By Thin Lei Win / AlertNet

The 400-strong Eskimo community in Newtok in western Alaska is living on shaky ground. Literally.

The permafrost – the permanently frozen subsoil – on which the village is located is melting as temperatures warm.

Advanced erosion caused by the Ninglick River next to the village and seasonal flooding and storm surges are further threats to its existence.

The Arctic Sea ice which normally acts as a buffer to storm surges is also reducing, making the village vulnerable to future extreme weather events, said Robin Bronen from the University of Alaska who has been working with the community for five years.

“We don’t have hurricanes in Alaska but we’ve been experiencing hurricane-force winds,” she told AlertNet at the sixth International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi.

Newtok, which is below sea-level, is already facing problems with saline intrusion in the water systems, she said.

“They have serious issues with sanitation too because the sewage lagoon is eroding. It was on top of frozen earth and it’s now melting,” added Bronen, who is also a human rights lawyer.

For this Yup’ik-speaking Eskimo community of subsistence hunters and fishermen, the only option left for adapting to the changing climate is to relocate.

The Newtok Planning Group, made up of community elders, federal and state agencies and non-government organisations, has chosen a spot nine miles south on Nelson Island called Mertarvik – it means “getting water from the spring” in Yup’ik.

“Their vision of their community is to be sustainable and resilient for the long-term so they’re looking at alternative technologies to get the electricity they need and alternative forms of housing so they use less energy,” said Bronen.

Like the residents of Newtok many other people around the world are likely to become climate refugees in the coming decades. Experts say Newtok’s experience underlines the urgent need to come up with a co-ordinated approach for relocating communities forced to abandon their homes because of rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.

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